Coming up from the Butterfield Ranch some five miles to the south, the paved turnout to the overlook of the old Mormon-built road in Box Canyon suggests an inviting stop. Cameras do especially well here, their shutters find things everywhere, like a rattlesnake being carried overhead by a hungry raven, or a quiet cactus wren’s nest hidden among the needle-like cholla and prickly yucca. There’s an abundance of huge barrel cactus here, once providing for—and possibly cultivated by—the stage drivers who passed through here in the 1850s carrying travelers into San Diego and Los Angeles.
Box Canyon is one of the last bursts of Sonoran Desert before reaching the coast range of California. The steep Laguna Mountains to the immediate west, at nearly 6,000 feet, create a formidable rain shadow accounting for the cold, dry air in the winter and the 100-plus degree temperatures in the summer. In fact, the record low and high spread of Box Canyon is about 115 degrees, which makes it a candidate for the most extreme temperature variation in Southern California. On most days, however, the temperature in Box Canyon is moderated by comfortable breezes that mix the hotter air from Mason Valley below with the cooler air from Blair Valley above.
As the great wheels of the stage scraped through the gouged-out rock, still visible in some places in the canyon today, passengers anticipated the pleasant ride just around the bend through what are now Blair, Earthquake and San Felipe valleys. From the “Journal of San Diego History,” San Diego Historical Society Quarterly, July 1968, Volume 14, Number 3:
On their long march from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to San Diego, in January 1847, the Mormon Battalion hacked out, with axes, a way for their wagons through the narrow chasm in the rocks, which, until then, had been a foot too narrow for vehicles. Box Canyon became, thereby, the first wagon road into Southern California, and prairie schooners, with their shuddering white tops, creaked through it like ships through a canal. There were only inches to spare, even for Butterfield’s Concord stage coaches.
Just north of the small parking area is a short, gentle trail to a couple of partially enclosed pit toilets. It’s also an area we note is a garden of yucca blooms and core wildlife best seen in the springtime. To the south of parking is a gentle trail to an observation point above the original road where its hand-tooled engineering can be seen. A short distance up the canyon, the last few bends in the canyon take a hiker along the historic road (see photo of riders).
The slideshows below are set to play automatically, but you may stop them at any time or jump into any photo by clicking on its frame in the film strip. Click on the arrow ⇒ button lower right of the film strip for enhanced views of the photos.
All photos this page by Barbara Swanson.
Box Canyon, a historical site and a nature trail, is accessed from a turnout on County S2 (see map below)—possibly San Diego County’s least-used highway. County S2 runs from Warner Springs to the north into Imperial County to the south (and farther into Ocotillo)—providing visitors a non-crowded, highly scenic route to explore the western and southern beauty of the Anza-Borrego State Park. The road is also known as the Great Overland Stage Route.